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Manju is friend and confidante to sex workers

Nov 07, 2014

In a room somewhere in Kushinagar in eastern Uttar Pradesh, women in the age group of 20-45 years troop in energetically. They know each other and share a camaraderie that suggests an intimate bond. Patting their saris in place and adjusting their buns and plaits, they take their places on the floor mat, sitting in a circle.

Manju

Manju Singh, the facilitator for the discussion, walks in and almost immediately the prattle begins. One of the girls says, “My client refuses to use a condom, how do I ensure I do not get a sexually transmitted disease.” An older woman admits rather sheepishly, “Yesterday, after consuming local brewed liquor, I was so inebriated that I could not insist on the client using protection. What do I do now?”

Manju and her trusted aide, Tarkeshwar, expertly steer the discussion in a manner that allows them to collectively find answers and solutions. Other women patiently talk to the two who are clearly in distress and from there on begins a candid session of counselling, therapy and sharing. Among other things, during the course of the meeting, time slots are also fixed for routine check-ups, treatment of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and screening for HIV at the local health centres.

Since the last eight years Manju’s non-government organisation (NGO), Savera has been running a targeted intervention, with the support of the National AIDS Control Society and the State AIDS Control Society, that reaches out to high risk and vulnerable groups, especially female sex workers. Much like women she helps, Manju, 38, is a strong and spirited woman who overcame the trauma of the sudden death of her husband, Anil Kumar, in 2009, and took over the reins of the NGO that he had set up. With three children to feed, conservative relatives, both on her husband’s side and her own, to contend with, and a social set up that offered negligible opportunities for women to work, she set an ambitious agenda for herself – to take forward the work of her activist-journalist husband.

Indeed, throughout their marriage, Anil had made sure that she was with him, not as a woman in ‘ghunghat’, confined to the home and hearth, but by his side, accompanying him on trips, working with marginalised groups and attending tough negotiation meetings with village panchayats and other groups. Wasn’t working in the highly stigmatised domain of HIV, way back in the 1990s when the epidemic was at its peak, a challenging activity? Almost with child-like triumph, Manju says, “Of course it was and still is, but my husband taught me to be nonchalant about what others think and do what your heart says is okay.”

There were two reasons that contributed to Kushinagar becoming the epicentre of HIV in Uttar Pradesh. Firstly, the area saw heavy migration – at one point “literally truckloads of young men were bundled up and shipped off to construction sites in the Middle East”. Secondly, it lies on the busy truck transit route to Bihar. Consequently, in homes where there were no menfolk present to earn and sustain large families women were pushed into sex work. According to various news reports, in the decade of 1990-2000, practically every day one new HIV case was being detected in the district.

Savera’s initial work was to identify female sex workers, many of who were “hidden” and “invisible”. Joining hands with social workers, medical doctors and community influencers, they gradually started drawing them into their fold. It took a few years before they could successfully gain their confidence, but once they did, the women started approaching them on their own and participating in sessions. Maintaining confidentiality at all times, Savera has striven to give them a life of dignity, providing support and services, linking them to health care, helping them access different government schemes and helping them strategise “survival tactics” as they took on community leaders, family elders and other dominant groups in the village, who left no stone unturned to humiliate them and exploit them sexually and otherwise.

It’s certainly not been smooth sailing for Manju and her staff. She recalls how two years ago, the families that resided close to their office protested against the “goings on” of the NGO, since some of them recognised the sex workers who came for their weekly meeting and to pick up their stock of condoms. Their voices of anger began to upset the women who were coming in, and in order not to jeopardise their safety and well-being Manju decided to look for another place.

Today, they are operating from a bigger place that she has rented at a sizeable sum. There are multiple rooms to cater to different counselling sessions, peer group meetings and discussion forums. The spaces provide privacy to the women as also ample opportunity to connect and bond.

“Many of the women who come here have been forced into paid sex work, with their families pushing them to take on 6-7 clients a day. All the money is taken from them and when they get an STI or HIV they are thrown out of the house,” shares Manju. Savera, through its various programmes, provides information and knowledge on being safe and healthy, without being judgemental. Though many of the sex workers have become her friends and they confide in her, Manju refrains from taking a moral view of their choices. Instead she gives them a neutral space where they can come, be themselves, sing, rest, make tea in the pantry and enjoy some quiet moments.

Money-wise neither has Savera built a huge kitty nor have Manju and Tarkeshwar been too ambitious to spread their wings. Their work speaks for itself. For the last eight years they have been implementing a Targeted Intervention project for the Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society (UPSACS). Many of their counsellors and peer educators have gone on to find permanent government jobs, which, to Manju, is a source of immense satisfaction. Earlier this year they have been selected as a ‘Learning Site’ for UPSACS, which is an acknowledgement of their good work. They will host delegations of NGOs, health workers, programme managers and activists from across the country and show them how they have streamlined processes to manage activities and contribute to bringing down HIV prevalence and build stronger linkages with the health care system in their region.

Accolades apart, what truly keeps Manju going is her need to be “in the middle of her people”. She could have taken the easy way out and lived either in her maternal home or amongst her in-laws. But she chose to step out of her comfort zone, continue with her husband’s work, even if not at the pace he would have maintained, but to still build on his goodwill and desire to do something for the community. Today, even if funding from donor agencies for HIV interventions has come down, her priority is clear. “The female sex workers have come to depend on us and funding or no funding we are going to be there for them. However, there are new concerns that plague our community. Japanese Encephalitis, or ‘deemagi bukhar’ is one of them and we are looking at contributing our bit in fighting this menace, which takes away precious lives, especially of little children,” she says with determination. The fighter and survivor that Manju is, there is little doubt that she will not take on this challenge too with the grace and strength that comes to her almost intuitively now.

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